- The first open-world title to make it onto store shelves back when the 'current-gen' was still the 'next-gen', Volition Inc.'s Saints Row was a brave step in confronting the juggernaut that is Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Even though GTA IV was still two years away when gamers first started their journey in Stilwater City, the story of the Third Street Saints remained very much in Rockstar's shadow.
A planned PS3 version was later canned to allow the THQ studio to focus on the inevitable follow up, which is now just small number of months away from release.
So as gamers prepare to return to Stilwater, a few months after the imminent return to Liberty City, TVG took time out at THQ's Gamers Day 2008 to speak to Saints Row 2 producer, Greg Donovan
TVG: What were some of the key weaknesses identified from the original Saints Row, and how have they been rectified for this year's follow up?
We can look at the various improvements on both a micro and macro level. One of the first that jumps out of me right away is the addition of mission checkpoints. Certainly, the introduction of 'cruise control' makes drive-bys a lot easier to handle - those are the two examples of micro level improvements.
Macro scale [improvements] would be technological; we've given the engine a complete overhaul, so we're able to push the technology a lot more. We're not having any of the issues that were experienced towards the end of development on Saints Row 1. We're very excited about that.
I think the visual quality is layers above that on Saints Row 1, and I think much of that comes from the fact that we were able to work closely with the team behind Saints Row 1.
TVG: Saints Row 2 marks the first time that the franchise makes an appearance on PlayStation 3; how have you found development on that specific version compared to the Xbox 360?
Well, certainly the platform architecture between the two are different, but we have a lot of clever people working on it. Let's not forget that we made a lot of headway on Saints Row 1 on PS3, even if it didn't make it into stores. We're able to leverage that experience; our team is the same that accrued that experience. I'm saying that it hasn't been easy, but it hasn't been "Oh my God!"
TVG: So is Saints Row 2 being developed on one of the platforms before getting ported over to the other?
We're working concurrently on both, even though we started production one or two weeks later on one of the platforms.
TVG: The Saints Row franchise was the first series to be produced since Volition made the switch to being a wholly open-world development studio. What were the main challenges in making that switch?
Well I don't know how appropriate it is for me to answer that because I didn't work on the first Saints Row; a lot of it would be anecdotal. But there were a number of challenges: number one, it was new hardware, and [secondly] it was a new genre for us. Putting those two together made it very, very challenging. But let's face it, the team worked their asses off, and they came out with a title that sold very, very well.
One thing that was great for us was that we were able to learn from those mistakes when it came to Saints Row 2. We actually started work on Saints Row 2 before the first one shipped, which was a really smart thing for us to do. We were able to talk to the Saints Row 1 team about some of the features we wanted to add, and what we should look out for. Anytime you make a game it's very difficult, but we're very good at learning from our experiences and mistakes, and making sure that we don't make the same mistakes twice.
TVG: Saints Row 2 sees the introduction of 'diversions'; can you explain what their role is in the wider gameplay?
Diversions basically make up bits of hidden gameplay, they're not really called out on a HUD or anywhere. They're designed to act as an incentive for players to go try things in the world. Open-world game fans are going to want and try and do things, and we think they should be rewarded for that. [Take] car surfing for example. The reason why we're putting that in there is because it's like glue. You always feel you're in the gameworld, you're always trying new things. It's things like the 'Stat Track' too, so [when gamers ask] "How many head shots did I do? How many Feds did I run over?" It's an extension of collecting, that basic form of gameplay that people really like. Diversions are actually one of my personal favourite additions to the game - I'm really excited about them.
TVG: One of the weaknesses of the first title was that because of the 'Respect' mechanic, gamers were forced into playing through Activities in order to progress through the storyline. Is the addition of diversions in Saints Row 2 a way of alleviating that?
I think that they ended up being a side-benefit of that. We're well aware of criticisms of the Activities feeling like a treadmill. What we've done to rectify that is instead of having them instanced three times in the gameworld like Saints Row 1, they're only instanced twice; we're also having more, and instead of having eight levels, there's only going to be six. But we're also linking Respect to diversions, so players can unlock all the single-player campaign just by doing wheelies. It may be dull, but if someone wants to do that, then we're not going to stop them.
TVG: You're continuing to give a very stylised look to the game, though there's been a definite improvement in terms of lighting and shadows. How much of that is Volition creating a specific visual style for Saints Row, and how much is it down to technical issues that has meant it's not been taken further?
Well it's a combination bit of both. We were able to give the engine an overhaul since Saints Row 1, as I said, we were able to start work before the first game shipped. But also thematically, it ties into what this game is all about: over-the-top, hyper-realism is what it's all about.
TVG: And will some of the dark humour of the in-game radio commercials make a return?
Absolutely, Saints Row definitely has its own unique brand of humour. We're not shying away from that; I think that we're pushing the limits a little bit. As far as the commercials go, you'll definitely find that humour in Saints Row 2. We're making a concerted effort to tie it to the game world, and what happens in the world. You'll find some of your favourite brands from Saints Row 1 come back, and you'll see some new ones. It's all tied in. We're treating Stilwater as a character, and using the radio stations is a very good way at doing that.
TVG: You're introducing three new gangs in Saints Row 2: the Sons of Samedi, the Ronin, and the Brotherhood. All three seem to follow very distinct racial lines, for instance the Ronin are very obviously Japanese in origin, whilst the Samedi are overtly Voodoo and Caribbean. After the three very hip-hop orientated gangs of Saints Row 1, why was the decision made to do that?
How do you know about the three gangs? You're not supposed to know that! I'm not going to talk about any of the gangs other than the Sons of Samedi. What I will say is that generally speaking, I think we've done a really, really good job in making these gangs stand out more than they did in Saints Row 1. You're going to know which gangs you're fighting at the time, and you'll have to change strategies when fighting one gang against another.
TVG: The recent trailers for Saints Row 2 have featured the actor, Gary Busy. Does he have a part to play in the actual game (as a voice actor), or was he recruited just for Saints Row 2's marketing?
He is just there for the promotion of the game - he's a fan. He's not in the game, at least not yet. Maybe we'll go and talk to him...
TVG: Character customisation is obviously a key part of Saints Row gameplay; why do you think that having such functionality is so important for players of the game?
Well I guess that with customisation, we wanted to reduce any kind of barrier that the player has. If they want to create someone that looks like them; if they want to create someone that looks like their friend, they can do that. Or if they want to create a borderline freak, they can do that all because we didn't want to create restrictions on it. We just think that customisation just adds into player choice, which is the staple thing about open-world games, which is why they're so popular. It's like "Don't restrict me, let me do what I want to do!"
TVG: So you don't think that it hinders character development of the protagonist?
I've been asked that question before, and I see the logic in asking it - but the answer is no. Let's not forget that you can change the way you look mid-way through the game. Once you've doing it, you're not stuck that way. If you find out it's not working for you, then you can go back to a point where it is.
TVG: It's difficult to talk about Saints Row 2 without mentioning GTA IV. The US release date for Saints Row 2 has been announced for the end of August, between the mid-way point between the launch of GTA IV and its Xbox 360 downloadable content at the end of the year. Can you talk about the decision in not shifting it to a date where Saints Row 2 could take advantage of the build up to the Holiday season?
Well you know, that has a lot of to do with internal THQ strategies. I can't get into specifics; I don't want to misrepresent Sales and PR in that context in any case. What I can say is that four months is more than enough for people to get through the competition and be ready for a new experience. The bottom line is that from what I can tell, Saints Row 2 is offering a very unique experience that gamers are going to want to get anyways.
TVG would like to thank Greg Donovan at Volition for taking the time to answer or questions. Saints Row 2 is due for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 at the end of August in North America. A European release is yet to be announced.